Fleet Street’s outrage over Soros anti-Brexit donation
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The right-wing media's furore over George Soros' donation to the anti-Brexit cause promoted accusations including anti-Semitism. But LIZ GERARD argues the real reason for the outrage was their fears his money could derail Brexit.
Is George Soros an international philanthropist making the world a better place or a serial meddler in other countries' affairs? A man out to protect or sabotage democracy?
Most people in Britain have probably never heard of this elderly Hungarian-American, so they wouldn't have a clue. For those who have, his name will forever be synonymous with Black Wednesday and our ignominious exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. He sold sterling, made a mint and has since been known as the man who broke the Bank of England. So he must be a baddie. Even without his opportunistic intervention, we'd have been in trouble, but people tend to forget that.
Now he's back on our front pages, splashing his money about to cause more problems in our relations with Europe. This time, rather than ending in our being forced out, he hopes that his efforts will result in our staying in. As the Daily Telegraph put it: 'The man who broke the Bank of England is backing a secret plot to thwart Brexit.' And that has made a lot of people angry.
The Telegraph story, brought in by former Theresa May aide Nicholas Timothy, reported that Soros had given £400,000 to the anti-Brexit Best for Britain organisation and what is more, he had hosted a dinner at which Tory donors were urged to follow his example.
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Best for Britain chairman Lord Malloch-Brown had put forward a strategy document that talked of 'guerrilla marketing tactics' to create a public momentum to pressure MPs to rebel in Parliament, forcing either another general election or a second referendum with the option of remaining in the EU. The donors apparently declined to open their wallets.
Soros, however, decided to open his further and promised to match crowd-funded donations of less than £100 up to a further £100,000. Anti-Brexiteers angered by the Telegraph story swept past that target in less than four days.
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In its reporting of the dinner, the Telegraph noted that Soros had 'made himself' persona non grata to regimes across Eastern Europe and 'been accused of having a hand in the fall of several governments'. A sidebar listed various countries where his Open Society Foundation had been meddling: Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Poland, the US and Hungary – where he is accused of orchestrating an 'ultra-liberal crusade'.
Other papers were swift to pick up on the story for their second editions: The Guardian reported the donation, the Daily Mail cleared a spread and pinched half the Telegraph's main heading. Next day it went optimum outrage with a splash, two spreads and a full-page leader – puffed from the front – telling Soros to butt out.
The fury wasn't confined to Brexiteers who felt that Soros had already enjoyed quite enough influence in our dealings with Europe, thank you. Social media was fuming too – over the Telegraph's 'dog-whistle anti-Semitism'.
Isn't that an Ali G response? To assume that an attack on an individual's actions is an attack on their race or faith? The Telegraph hadn't mentioned that he was Jewish.
Ah, but the coverage was full of 'anti-semitic tropes' – hints that those with twitching antennae would pick up on. Except perhaps not those who are not Jewish, not anti-Semitic or who don't know or care that Soros is Jewish – ie, most people. To them, the coverage may have been anti-Remainer, anti-foreigner, but anti-Semitic?
Where the Telegraph failed was that it didn't bother with a little biog, detailing Soros's beginnings as a refugee and Holocaust survivor, telling how he rose to lead the world's third biggest charitable organisation and describing the projects it had funded. Instead, it listed Soros's alleged sins of political interference with no rebuttal or context – and absolutely nothing about what is going on in his native Hungary.
There the right-wing government of Victor Orban – whose Oxford studies were paid for by Soros – has declared all-out war on the financier, with a 'stop Soros' plan in the run-up to an April election that the sitting prime minister is expected to win. The plan includes targeting organisations – including some funded by Soros's foundation – that help illegal immigrants (there doesn't seem to be such a thing as a legal one), and possibly the Central European University in Budapest that was established by Soros.
The antipathy is partly about immigration: Soros wants the country to open its doors to refugees, but Hungary has refused to accept even the quota required by the EU and is facing sanctions from the European Commission as a result.
And there are other differences of opinion, mostly over Soros's financial backing for NGOs in Hungary and elsewhere that have led to his being portrayed as a political puppet-master. It is open warfare: his face smiles down from government billboards urging voters 'Don't let Soros have the last laugh'. An MP even posted a photograph on Facebook with the caption 'one pig less'. The photograph showed a dead pig with the words 'O volt a soros!' carved in its skin. The words could be translated either as 'he was next in line' – or 'he was Soros'. The MP said he had no idea what the problem was.
Orban's spokesman Zoltan Kovacs, whose About Hungary blog denounces 'Soros myths', was quick to pick up on the Telegraph story, tweeting: 'Why do we say 'stop Soros'? Just ask the people of the UK, where's he's working to overturn the Brexit referendum and perhaps topple a democratically-elected government in the process.'
Here in Britain, Brexiteers lined up to agree. They included Iain Duncan Smith, who said it was wrong for foreign plutocrats to undermine democracy, Lord Lamont – the Chancellor undone by Black Wednesday – who described Soros as a brilliant financier who should stick to finance, and Tory MP Henry Smith, who came up with the 'butt out' quote that gave the Mail its front-page puff. Inside, its leader cried: 'They just don't get it, do they? This elitist class imposing THEIR views on ordinary people'.
Those elitists turned up again in Nick Timothy's Telegraph column, for, as we know, rich people who want to stay in the EU and refuse to stop pressing their case are 'elitist'. Rich people who want to leave and push hard for a Brexit that is likely to benefit them personally are 'in touch with the people'. The heading on Timothy's piece was 'Remainers plot to bring down the Government'. One could say that he made a pretty good fist of that himself, turning a working majority into a minority administration by encouraging the least charismatic leader in a generation to run a presidential campaign.
Even Brexit arch-villainess Gina Miller was apparently onside, 'branding as undemocratic' an organisation that she herself had founded and demanding transparency in its funding. The Mail was so impressed that it ran another leader, praising her as a woman of principle 'for her condemnation of Soros's scheming'.
Condemnation of scheming? Miller told The New European that she regarded attempts to bring down a government other than through an election or a referendum as undemocratic, and says that toppling May is the last thing the country needs at the moment. But she also described Soros as a great philanthropist and humanitarian, and called for transparency not only with regard to his donations, but in all political funding – 'which is certainly not the case for Leave funders, with an apparently illiberal destabilising agenda'.
Like B4B, Miller believes that there should be an autumn referendum offering voters a choice between the Brexit deal and remaining in the EU. But she was annoyed at being linked to the latest initiative – she helped to establish the group to encourage young people to get involved in the election campaign, but has had no dealings with it since last June - and described the Telegraph report as mischief. 'It was not that Soros or B4B were not being transparent about his donation, it was that they were talking to major Conservative donors that appears to have angered Nick Timothy et al.
'The story appears to be a strategy by right-wing press to poison the well and discredit – even bring down – the organisation. They are becoming, and will continue to be, more aggressive and more desperate as the realities of Brexit become clear and their win looks threatened.'
Foreign influence in the domestic politics of any state is clearly an issue of importance. May told the EU to 'keep out' of our general election campaign and has accused Putin of spreading fake news and meddling in elections to undermine free societies – although she has seemed less troubled by allegations of Russian interference in the referendum or Trump's election.
Laws banning the use of foreign money for election campaigns are clear (or relatively so), but foreign money pours into all sorts of UK organisations and we encourage it. Our trains are owned by foreigners; our water is supplied by foreign companies; our car factories are run by foreigners; our scientific research is financed by foreign charities; our universities depend on endowments from foreign philanthropists; four of our national daily newspapers, accounting for more than half the total readership, are controlled by foreigners and non-doms.
Nor is it all one-way traffic: our much-maligned foreign aid budget is supposed to improve people's lives abroad. Former International Development Secretary Priti Patel and Boris Johnson say it should be used to further British interests. Patel even talked about linking it with trade, which some might see as baksheesh – or bribery.
So it is inevitable that foreign money will find its way into campaigns with both overtly and obliquely political agendas. Some is doubtless being used to further the Brexit cause.
No one has questioned the legality of the Soros donation, which was given openly to a campaign with openly stated objective. The only secretiveness about the 'clandestine' Remain 'plot' appears to have been that the approach to Tory donors took place at a private dinner party to which the world wasn't invited.
There are, however, unanswered questions about the funding of the Leave campaign, as Miller pointed out. The Electoral Commission is investigating the £8m in loans and donations Arron Banks contributed to Leave.eu and whether he was the true source of the money or a front. It is also looking into the spending of Vote Leave.
Against the media outrage over Soros, Downing Street's reaction to the injection of foreign cash was sanguine – 'Mr Soros is entitled to fund political campaigns. It won't change anything' – and worthy of only a couple of pars deep inside most papers' coverage.
Compare that with the treatment of May's similarly hands-off response to the uproar over the Mail's 'Enemies of the people' splash in November 2016. Her comment 'I believe in the value of the independence of our judiciary. I also value the freedom of our Press' made a double-page spread in the Mail, headlined 'May backs Press in judges row'. That's journalism for you.
The Press response to the Soros dinner was predictable (right down to the Mail on Sunday inflaming hostilities with its daily sister by commissioning an 'I won't butt out' riposte from Soros). We are familiar with the argument that when it comes to Brexit, democracy is a once-and-forever vote and that all subsequent questioning is out of order. The Telegraph, Mail, Express and Sun would have been almost as angry if it were British money being pumped into the Best for Britain fight. The foreign meddler bit and his ERM history was the icing on the cake.
The most worrying thing here is not the mantra that Remoaners should shut up, the anti-foreigner rhetoric or the perceived anti-Semitism. It is that to further their Brexit cause, our politicos and newspapers are aligning themselves with hard-right regimes such as that in Hungary, and that they trot out the arguments of autocrats and demagogues rather than do their own research to present even-handed assessments.
Those who think Soros is a Bad Thing include Hungary, Uzbekistan, Poland, Putin, Trump and Breitbart. Do we in Britain wish to be seen in such company?